HALLOWELL — The Planning Board has come under fire lately, but Mayor Mark Walker said they’re just doing their job.

“Being on the Hallowell Planning Board is a difficult job, and like many in city government, it’s thankless,” Walker said during an interview at his law office. “There is a lot for them to know.”

Walker brought up making changes to the board during last week’s council meeting largely because of the upcoming Stevens School project, which city expects will prompt ordinance amendments and changes to the special district at the 54-acre site.

“We have 54 acres now in private hands and there’s going to be a lot of things going on up there, and many of those things are going to have to go before the Planning Board,” he said. “We need to give the Planning Board the tools to make their decisions, and that includes training.”

According to Walker and longtime board member Jane Orbeton, there used to be several training sessions attended by members over the years, including training related specifically to historic districts. Orbeton attended one years ago, and Walker, who said he hasn’t been to a Planning Board meeting in years, was unaware that its members lack training once considered routine.

“We have failed the Planning Board as a council and city in their efforts to do the best jobs and to make the best decisions,” Walker said. “I really want them ready to make good and sometimes prompt decisions.”

Walker and Orbeton said several, if not all, of the Planning Board members will attend a June 2 training event by the Maine Municipal Association. Eric Conrad, director of communication and educational services for the organization, said board training is especially valuable because municipalities have to follow so many laws.

“It is one of our bread-and-butter workshops and one of our most popular,” Conrad said. “We probably train 400 to 500 planning board members yearly.”

Conrad said one of the common things planning board members need to understand is their roles, which he said are more complicated than they seem.

Alison Nichols, an Augusta Planning Board member since 2005, said there is a huge learning curve, especially when it comes to dealing with the public.

“It’s difficult to feel comfortable expressing your opinion,” Nichols said. “Members of the community can be very angry at what you’re doing, discussing and deciding, so it can be very intimidating.”

Nichols said often neither the applicant nor the neighbors are happy with a Planning Board decision, but that doesn’t mean the decision was a bad one.

“When both sides don’t leave 100 percent happy, it means you’ve given something to both sides that you felt was fair,” Nichols said. “You can’t avoid it, and you try not to take it personally.”

Over the last several months, the Hallowell Planning Board has reviewed applications to demolish a building along Water Street, to expand and add to the Quarry Tap Room and to relocate the entrance to the Liberal Cup restaurant. None of those applications was heard and voted on in one meeting, because the Planning Board needed additional information, the application was lacking certain specifics, or both.

In the case of the demolition of 226 Water St., developer Steve Hammond’s attorney, Walter McKee, made his case before the board three times before the board voted down the plan, only to see its decision reversed by the Board of Appeals a few weeks later. McKee declined to comment.

Walker said he’s heard from several people about having to come back to multiple meetings, which delays the start of any project by at least a month. He said if an applicant has a plan that is presented and is complete, the board can make an appropriate decision.

“We’ve had this come up in the last several months about how does the public know what they are supposed to present to the Planning Board,” Walker said. “For the general public, we should have some sort of application packet to tell them what they need.”

Walker said attendance also has been a factor in some of the difficulties the Planning Board has had recently. There is an absence at every meeting, and sometimes two or three; so the alternates, who Walker said are expected to attend each meeting, should be ready.

“If those absences continue and are seemingly permanent, then we are going to have to have a new member,” Walker said. The city is anticipating a lot of activity in the coming months and years regarding the Stevens School site, so Walker is looking for someone with a specific background.

During the May council meeting, Dan Davis was appointed as an alternate, though he may get moved up to a permanent spot should one come open. Davis is familiar with the regulatory process and building codes, Walker said, which is a “unique skill set that we are very fortunate to have access to.”

The Planning Board’s next meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, when it will review three historic district certificates of appropriateness. Walker said several of the new Planning Board members don’t have much experience dealing with the historic district.

“We have a unique historic district and a very active historical society (Row House),” Walker said. “So I think the time is now to have some discussion on how to handle businesses or homeowners that have property in the historic district.”

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ

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